The Comic Book Movie Debate: the Serious, and the Not So Serious

I credit Christopher Nolan for sparking the ever-growing debate circling comic book films: colorful, or dark? campy, or serious? true to form, or realistically-based?

It must have been the release of Batman Begins in 2005, when the world was introduced to a comic book character–Bruce Wayne/Batman–and it wasn’t a pretty look. It was dark. It was a crime film. It was a serious take on a fictional character that had previously been rooted in a show that used “Bam!” and “Pow!” as the sound effects for Batman’s left and right swings.

Few, if any, could not at least admire the beauty and purposefulness of Nolan’s Batman films. Nolan is a student of Kubrick, using intent and style to craft his films. But let’s get down to the debate.

When Avengers was released this past May, it was a smash. Creative and geeky writer-director Joss Whedon was finally put forward to make something mainstream. The Avengers was a huge success at the box office. But the debate isn’t about whether Avengers was financially and critically successful or not. The question is, which comic book films are better–the Nolan approach (as I like to think of it) which uses a more realistic take, bringing a critical eye to a story that is written with far more intent than desire to entertain; or the truer-to-form, source-material based comic book films that honor the comics more so in their character traits and settings, such as Thor and Captain America?

I know people on both sides of the debate. But maybe it’s people’s perspectives, rather than opinions, that ought to be altered today. On one end, as a person who appreciates a good film, you lower the importance of “source material” (which happens to be comic books in this case) because you prioritize the art of the film. It ought to be stylized. It should have all the marks of a good film, from following a good storyline, to reaching beyond mere entertainment. It should influence and inspire while bringing more to the table than just explosions and snarky one-liners. This kind of movie should treat the audience like more than just a bunch of superhero-wannabees; it should reach out to an intelligent audience, one that is capable of drawing its own conclusions. More critics respond to this more “realistic” approach.

From the other side, you have the readers, the comic book geeks, the writers, the superhero nerds (have I stereotyped people in this post enough yet?) who expect these films to live up to the comics they love. The actors should reflect the characters they’re playing. The mood shouldn’t be so stiff and serious as to detract from the true tone of the comic. They should include that lightness and fluff, because that’s how the comics were written! Yes, a good villain is necessary, and plot points should closely reflect that of the comics. The film should reach out to a more universal audience, because that’s what the stories of most comic books are all about–everyone either needs a hero or wants to be a hero at some point, right? It should entertain, because after all, you’re attending a comic book film, not a war film or something “based off a true story.” Comic books serve as a form of escape; shouldn’t you be allowed to turn your mind off for a couple hours, sit back, and relax?

In every attempt to not sound politically correct, I personally try to go by a single rule: the film ought to fit the format. Unfortunately, that rule can be applied multiple ways to comic book films, as we have seen various takes, from the more family-friendly popcorn flick, The Avengers, to Nolan’s darker shades, The Dark Knight Trilogy.

When it comes down to it, I can’t call one style or one method, better or worse than another. They’re all different visions for these fictional characters. While some comic book films exceed and others fall flat, while some are entertaining as hell and others force me to sit and think, I have enjoyed and appreciated films that fly on both sides of the fence.

Perhaps it has been the explosion of superhero films taking over summer theater seasons these past 2-3 years (X-MenGreen LanternGreen HornetThorCaptain America, Iron ManBatman to name a few) that have caused people to question whether comic book movies ought to take a more serious approach, or be what the comic books always intended the characters and stories to be.

Or, one has to ask, did the comic books ever propose a specific tone to be applied? I mean, after all, serious events do take place in comics. Serious crimes committed, serious truths implied, serious moral questions asked. Is it all within the way a person (read: reader or viewer, not director or writer)  approaches said comic book or film? Do we need to go back to the original comic book writers and ask them what their intent was when writing? Most likely there were multiple purposes: both to entertain, and to influence.

Both light-hearted and more serious comic book films do both of those actions, do they not? The Avengers offered food for thought–what about working together as a team? how much do people need to be stripped down before they can rally together? should your special abilities allow you to have a big ego? what about self-sacrifice, giving of yourself?

And doesn’t The Dark Knight Rises offer up a bit of entertainment as well? “Oh, so that‘s how that feels.” Catwoman screaming. “And yes, Mr. Wayne, it comes in black.”

At the end of the day, a good film is a good film. But isn’t determining what a “good film” is mostly subjective? Maybe I should just stop asking questions, grab a bowl of popcorn, and watch a movie that isn’t about a superhero. :)

It’s your turn now. What say you? Should comic book films be serious, or not so serious? Does it even matter? What makes a comic book film good, and what makes it not so good?

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37 thoughts on “The Comic Book Movie Debate: the Serious, and the Not So Serious

  1. Ahah, I LOVE that photo of Thor & Capt with that funny quote, love it!! This is a great argument, Kris, and so very timely. I think there are room for both interpretation. As a fan of superhero movies, I’ve enjoyed both end of the spectrum, the more whimsical stuff like Iron Man and of course Nolan’s Batman, and I certainly would like to see The Flash being made and that one should be more in the whimsical tone I think, can’t imagine that being done as dark and brooding! I think as long as the film is well-cast and well-written, that’s the recipe for a good movie.

    • Thanks, Ruth! I know, it totally cracked me up! Good call — I think there’s room for both too. I just find it interesting that as multiple perspectives arrive on the scene, then come in the skeptics and debaters of what’s better than what. We movie people tend to struggle just appreciating movies for what they are–a good or a bad movie. We must compare! Good thoughts. I agree — good writing and casting are essential for a good film.

  2. Great discussion. I’m a huge proponent of both and think there is plenty of room for both. I’m a comic book guy and honestly for many, many years the books have had a much more serious tone. In fact Nolan’s Batman is faithful to the tone if the Batman comic. Marvel likes to mix a bit of seriousness from today and mix it with some elements of the older takes on the characters in comic books. It works really really well. So give me both!

    • Happy to hear that, Keith! See — you already have a leg up on me and many people who don’t know as much about the comics. I do know that DC and Marvel have taken different approaches to the tone of comics. Thanks for sharing your thoughts — it’s always great to learn new information that helps me get a more informed opinion!

  3. I think both are equally valid. I think consistency of tone is the most important factor. I remember watching a animated DC superman movie a couple of days ago, and its start seemed to promise something a bit dark and morally complex. But i feel like it totally abandoned that, and pissed me off so much. Don’t lead viewers on to thinking you are doing dark and realistic if you aren’t going to follow through

    • Thanks for visiting the site! Having that consistent tone–going either all dark or all light–can definitely influence how the success of a film. I appreciated that The Avengers seemed to have a uniform feel while having lots of funny quips as well as its serious moments too. Overall, I think having that proper balance really either makes or breaks the tone of a film. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. I dont think they have to be one or the other, but I think a touch of realism does make them better, certainly. Camp can be fun occasionally (I still love the Adam West Batman) but they cant all be like that.

    I think its more important to get the tone RIGHT. Avengers felt like it had a lot of fun and was very lighhearted at times, but it also managed to be serious enough not to be completely devalued as being some sort of quasi-comedy.

    Personally, I felt like The Dark Kinght Rises on the other hand took itself so god damn seriously that it sucked the air out of the room. That was a big drawback for me.

    So its a balancing act. Nice topic though! Good question!

    • Ahh, Fogs, I think along the same viewpoint — I really appreciate that realistic touch for a comic film. For me, it really can boost a film from good to great. Yeah, campiness has its place.

      Great point! I agree with you regarding The Avengers. Really appreciated its balance and thought it was just a good film overall.

      Really? I actually enjoyed TDKR a lot! Overall, it seemed like CNolan was planning to make his trilogy (or series of Batman films) with that dark, serious tone, so I wasn’t taken off guard by its tone.

      Very true — at the end of the day, a film either finely balances itself between its funny and serious parts, or it fails badly. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Nice topic, Kristin, I was actually thinking recently about why I liked The Avengers more than TDKR this summer. I think for me at least, the fact that I was much more of a Marvel reader than DC reader when growing up, coupled with the bar being set pretty high after the last Batman film tilted the scales of justice toward the Avengers.

    Glad to see you posting again :-)

    • Thanks! Really? I had a hard time choosing one over the other really. I’m sure reading Marvel influenced you a bit, but I’ve heard from multiple people that they enjoyed Avengers over TDKR.

      Thanks — I’m working on it, slowly but surely! Hope to check out everyone else’s sites soon. Glad you stopped by!

  6. I enjoy both interpretations–but there has to be a balance. If it is too cartoon-ish and weak on plot and motivation (Green Lantern)–it will fail–as will any movie though.

    There has to be an underlining of reality for any superhero to be relatable. That’s why Batman is popular because he is JUST a man. No super powers, only gadgets, a scarred psyche and tons of money. :) Of course, if you are dealing with mutants–gods–aliens–etc…there will be a level of supernatural elements added to the universe, but still there has to be a human component otherwise it is hard to care about them.

    Bottom line for me? I love this genre because it will deliver badassery! I go for the moments when I say, “DAMN! That was cool! I want to do that!” I want to be lost in world where reality is present but can be suspended for awesomeness.

    So, either realistically serious or fantastically not so serious…I want to be transported to a world where I can believe the unbelievable and yet I can connect with the characters in a real way. If you can do that in any style or form? I am in.

    • Hey, you’re all about connecting to the characters — I like that. You’re right — if there isn’t some kind of human, relatable element, the audience isn’t going to care so much for the character. Batman has all of those human elements that make us appreciate him that much more because he is just like us. I’ve realized in just talking to people online that it’s a very subjective topic — many people like both styles, but even more prefer one tone over another. But I think you’re definitely onto something . . . thanks for visiting the site! I enjoyed reading your thoughts!

  7. I think it all depends on the comic story, whether it could be a better film when it’s realistic or not. Perhaps Nolan saw the potential of Batman become a darker movie, and so he has that vision and nailed the trilogy. Bruce wayne have a dark past, so that’s a potential, compared to spider-man who also an orphan but still live with his uncle and aunt.

    Great topic! Also, I don’t know if you’re interested to join but I just pass liebster award to you http://www.inspired-ground.com/liebster-blog-award-2/ just for the sake of another cameron crowe fan :)

    Have a good day!

    • Very true. Some of the comic book heroes weren’t meant to take on such a serious tone, but I also think that part of the reason the serious tone worked was not only that it was Batman, a darker character, but also because no one has created a serious comic book film before! CNolan really took the plunge, and this *new* product really started a chain reaction in comic book films.

      Thanks! I did notice that — I really appreciate that, thank you! I’ve been pretty overwhelmed at work lately (I’m just getting to these comments weeks later– yikes!), so I may not have a whole lot of time. But I appreciate the thought and will do what I can. So glad there’s another big Cameron Crowe fan out there :)

  8. Great article! In general I fall on the pro-light-hearted side (I can’t say enough good things about Spider-man 1/2, X-Men, Captain America), but I can definitely appreciate the darker films.

    Batman Begins/The Dark Knight, The Watchmen, Spawn, Blade – these were a far cry from the traditional “hero as a paragon of virtue”/optimistic/aspirational genre that Marvel traditionally deals in. And I appreciated all of them for what they did well.

    In my opinion, the darkness and realism of TDKR are not the problem, but they’re the more tangible descriptors people turn to when describing what they didn’t like about it. TDKR was just muddled; it was full of plotholes and storylines that were not followed through to their conclusion. Bane had no logical motivation, the 5-month countdown never made any sense, Bruce was just mopey for a while until he got over it (sorta), Blake looked like he was being useful (coordinating with the police, trying to help the kids escape) but was ultimately window-dressing that did nothing for the plot (as was Selina)…

    THESE are the real problems. And if you force audiences to sit through all of them for nearly 3 hours, it shouldn’t feel like a chore. If you give them lightness and humor, or at least some good action, they’ll forgive the rest.

    • Happy to see someone comment who falls on that side! Welcome to the site, btw :)

      I love how you drew out some of the major issues of TDKR. Surprisingly, I’ve heard few mention one particular issue you brought up — how both Blake and Selina didn’t really move the plot in any direction. But can I play devil’s advocate to you for a minute here? Wasn’t Selina necessary to deliver Batman to Bane? Not to mention, it was Selina who killed Bane in the end . . . so while her character didn’t really drive the plot forward, wasn’t her character still necessary for major actions to take place?

      Speaking for Blake, was he not the actual “dark knight” reference in the title? He rises in the end. He plays the successor. Or at least that’s how I took it. Again, you’re right — he didn’t serve the plot well in pushing it forward, but he did have his moments where his character seemed necessary.

      Thanks for mentioning those issues — you’re right, those are definite problems in a film. Haha, I’m not sure about movie people being that forgiving though . . . :) Thanks for commenting! I appreciate the different perspective.

      • Please do play devil’s advocate, I love it!

        I think they manufactured things for Selina to do that could easily have been done by anyone/thing else. Batman was looking for Bane, and could have found him any number of ways – a gadget, tracking device, following a minion, or even a minion purposely leading him to Bane (as Selina did), since Batman and Bane BOTH wanted the showdown to happen. It’s not like he was tricked into meeting him, just into staying for a fight. What did Selina do? Watch him get beat up, then decide to be a good guy? Seems pretty simplistic to me. The fact that I don’t even remember how Bane died shows just how much of an impact THAT had on me.

        The first “Dark Knight” was a movie about Bruce Wayne, and referred to Batman. Yes, Blake might take up the mantle in the next installment, but shoehorning that bit in at the end doesn’t make him a better character. When was he necessary? He “just knew” Batman was Bruce Wayne. What? He coordinated for FIVE MONTHS with his partner underground, just for that partner to be immediately shot and killed. No purpose. Batman explicitly asks Selina to blow out an escape route – which NOT A SINGLE PERSON USES TO ESCAPE THE CITY. Blake is told to “Save as many people as possible” out of TWENTY MILLION, and he ATTEMPTS to save TWENTY kids, and even failed at that! Very useful indeed.

  9. “Or, one has to ask, did the comic books ever propose a specific tone to be applied? I mean, after all, serious events do take place in comics. Serious crimes committed, serious truths implied, serious moral questions asked. Is it all within the way a person (read: reader or viewer, not director or writer) approaches said comic book or film? Do we need to go back to the original comic book writers and ask them what their intent was when writing? Most likely there were multiple purposes: both to entertain, and to influence.”

    I agree but you know what? I’m not sure if comic-book films should be serious or not. Maybe the key is having the right tone in mind and striving to nail it. I love the Batman trilogy by Nolan and those are dead serious, and I hated The Avengers for being too silly, so I thought I liked my superheroes serious and devoid of humor.
    But The Amazing Spider-Man achieved such a great balance of drama, comedy, action and romance that I didn’t mind the organic, effortless humor at all. If I absolutely had to choose, though, I’d go with the dark and serious “Nolan-approach”.

    • Hey there! Thanks for stopping by again. You are the first to have brought up The Amazing Spider-Man . . . and I’m so glad you did! Marc Webb really knows how to achieve that pitch-perfect tone in film, doesn’t he? (I guess I’m thinking of his success with 500 Days of Summer as well!).

      This new Spider-Man really had such a great tone of those silly, light-hearted moments that fit the character of Peter Parker while still inducing those serious issues, even within a high school relationship as well as death.

      Although I, for one, very much enjoyed The Avengers, I probably would side more on the Nolanesque-type comic book film at the end of the day like yourself.

  10. I think a lot of people confuse good/great movie with how serious it has to be. Thankfully, Joss Whedon was able to infuse a breath of fresh air by showing that a comic book movie can be a bit goofy and humorous and still be really good. Hopefully, that will move the industry away from the omnipresent “dark and gritty” spin we have been getting since Batman Begins.

  11. I think that you can’t have a blanket tone for all superhero/comic book films. I think the source material or character comes with their own tone. Batman, generally, will always suit a darker tone and darker film, which is why Nolan’s movies and Burton’s movies are some of the most successful and most loved. The same rule can be applied for Punisher and Watchmen which wouldn’t have worked as “lighter” films and needed to be darker and more serious. Avengers, beginning with Iron Man, went for a “lighter” tone and that worked perfectly because the heroes they were working with are much more fantastical.

    What I worry about is that they haven’t paid attention to this with respect to Superman. Superman is a “lighter” superhero. He flies, shoot fire from his eyes and wears underwear outside his suit, he shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The first teaser trailer doesn’t give this message at all.

    • Hey Ben — thanks for visiting the site!

      I have to say, you’re the first to comment and say that it all goes back to the source material. Thanks for bringing that up–you make an excellent point! Truly, the tone of a film really does lie in the tone of the original source material (if the film has original source material its based off of).

      That’s interesting–you have a point there. But with a Nolan named attached, even as producer, I can’t imagine it taking on much of a light tone. I’ll be curious to see another trailer and see where it goes from there. Thanks for stopping by — I will have to check out your site, Ben!

  12. I think part of it has to do with the source. To me, Batman is easy to do a Nolan on. As Nolan showed, you can more easily remove the fantasy from that material and make it darker and realistic. It’s harder to do that with some other comics. When there is such a deep mix of sci-fi/fantasy rooted in the characters and story it is harder to make them “more serious,” but I don’t think that means they can’t be dark.

    Iron Man has the potential to follow Nolan’s Batman. In the comics Stark goes through some deep shit. It wouldn’t be that big of a stretch to attempt mimic Nolan’s style for that. It’s a choice though. Thor can be dark and gritty, but the realistic part is sort of thrown out of the window because he is Thor (though they do the brief “it’s science” explanation). Part of why Nolan was able to make his films grittier and more ‘real’ is because he spent a good deal ignoring that Batman wears a rubber suit and focused more on the man behind it struggling. Same with the other characters in those films. It was less about the fact that Batman could be like Superman wearing tights and have superpowers and focused on the character. The other traits were just extra.

    Personally I’m glad we have Nolan’s Batman and the Avengers. They show that you can approach comic book adaptations differently. I’d rather they weren’t all one style. I’d be horrified if my only options were a Nolan Batman or Adam West. I love both, but it doesn’t give you any variety.

    • I think that it’s easier to focus on the “man” of Batman than Batman himself because he DOESN’T have special powers. Batman is one of those different heroes we like more because he is just human (and also a billionaire, great sense of imagination, and heightened desire for justice).

      I’m with you, Nic — I’m glad they’re not all one style either! The variety gives us the opportunity to discuss these topics at length, like on this post :) Thanks for stopping by!

  13. Very interesting topic. It’s all very relative at times. I mean, yes generally Marvel’s Avengers comic books are seen as perhaps more light hearted than DC’s Batman comics, but it all depends on who’s the writer/artist of the actual comic book source. And then what, from that, the film makers want to take. Like you said, very serious and real things happen in comic too.

    With true comic book fans, for them, the most important things is that their source material is taken seriously whether it’s serious or not. It shouldn’t be poked fun at, unless that’s the point of the source material. They want their heroes to be treated with a certain amount of respect.

    For me, I like both. I love a fun, light hearted take. But really enjoy the darker comic book film affairs like Nolan’s Batman films and The Watchmen. I like that comic book characters are getting put into more real world situations. I think it can open the general movie going audiences to more serious matters. Heck, look at Nolan’s TDKR where he tackles things like the whole Occupy Movement, alternate energy, domestic terrorism. Sure he plays both sides, but he does it well. These aren’t the sort of themes mainstream cinema going audiences tend to go for, but as they’re wrapped in a comic book film, they’re seen as acceptable or just plain not seen!

    The most important thing for me is that they need to be good films. Well written. Well executed and enjoyable to watch.

    • Jaina, so glad you brought up something new — all those issues Nolan included in TDKR. You’re right — mainstream audiences do NOT go for those types of films, but when they’re wrapped in a super-hero film, they suddenly do gain this acceptance. It’s a little ironic, but admittedly very cool when you think of what a powerful action that is on a writer and director’s end, specifically Christopher Nolan in this case!

      Your closing point is exactly right. At the end of the day, it comes down to those really important, basic elements of film-making. And when they’re present, you get a much better end product.

  14. It all varies on the character and the story that wants to be told. Castor hit it right on the money by bringing up Whedon — who did show us what a buoyant superhero film can accomplish.

    Intriguing article Kristen.

    • Sam! Happy to see you on the site. Thanks for stopping by!

      Yep, Castor definitely hit it. Happy to see the intelligent reaction of my fellow movie buffs, and all the great information that’s come through here to make me more informed as a movie viewer.

      Glad you enjoyed it!

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